A favorite thought experiment of mine is pondering the hows-and-whys of the world. There are mountains of geological and archeological information to consider. Fortunately, the fog lifts a bit, and I see a little deeper.
The difficulty is that a mountain of details always gets in the way of the view. You know the problem… ‘One can’t see the forest for the trees’. Nevertheless, this current era appears to me to be overwhelming, and unique in human evolution.
James Carville had it right when he said, “It’s the economy, stupid”, although I don’t know if he realizes how deeply that extends. Looking at this forest from 10,000 feet, it is obvious to me that economic realities shape everything. Not just for humans, but for all life. After all, economics is just an emergent property of survival-based relationships. Anyway, here is the story as I see it so far…
Which Came First, Language, Music, or Fire? The Egg, of Course.
Once upon a time, our distant ancestors tamed what was a fearsome phenomenon — fire! Conversely, maybe this all began with the development of language, or more likely, with music that laid the foundation for language. Indeed, there is growing evidence for that. See Language, Music, and the Brain: A Mysterious Relationship. Not music like the kind we hear on the radio mind you. It would be more like the music elephants and whales use to communicate. Okay, that takes care of the first one or two million years, maybe more. Now I’ll move on to firmer ground.
The age of fire, began around 500,000 years ago (1) when people figured out how to make and manage that fiercesome ‘spirit’ that terrifies other animals. This made life much easier. Hunters fire-hardened their spear tips, which brought home more bacon. Fire allowed them to cook food making various nutrients more digestible, and freed up some ‘chewing time’ as well. Finally, fire allowed us to leave the warm climate of the tropics and settle the whole planet, nearly pole to frigid pole.
Agriculture and Primitive Metallurgy
Granaries excavated in Jordan indicate that people stored large quantities of wild cereals by about 11,300 years ago, a practice that led to the cultivation of domesticated plants. This radical shift in human lifestyle, the Neolithic Revolution of around 10,000 years ago, saw the transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals. Only a few thousand years later, around 5000 years ago, came metallurgy.
The first major metal was bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, which when alloyed with copper made a much harder metal. At around this same time the first writing appears in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Harappa (a major city in the ancient Indus Valley civilization). Not surprisingly, the first writing is clearly related to trade… (“the economy stupid”). Stand back a little and you can see the exponential nature of progress beginning to ramp up.
About 3,000 years ago saw the beginning of a widespread use of iron. Being profoundly stronger, cheaper and easier to produce than bronze, the use of iron became available to the masses. This technological leap forward was the fulcrum to catapult humanity fully out of the stone-age. With this came the introduction of all the major religious paradigms of today. Coincidence you say?… No way! These were just essential ‘religion upgrades’ to help people cope with the momentous economic and cultural changes brought about by iron.
The Electricity Age, as I like to call it, beginning a little over 100 years ago has allowed a quantum leap in industrial and scientific innovation (2). I regard this era as important to human evolution as the harnessing of fire itself. Indeed, you could say electrical energy is a purer form of fire. Yet, being in the midst of it all, it’s difficult to see this in a millennial perspective. One way to appreciate the impact of the harnessing of electricity is to imagine how life would be without it. There would be no machines except for those driven by animal, water, or steam. All modern science and medicine depend entirely upon electricity. Without electricity, there could be no computers, and without them, none of the momentous medical breakthroughs we are just beginning to see.
The Age of Wisdom… of sorts
Medical breakthroughs are truly the culmination of all these Ages. Throughout most of these past 500,000 years, life expectancy along with birthrate has kept the median age of human populations in the teenage range. The result, as history shows, is that cultures have behaved as you’d expect teenagers to behave. The dawning of the Electricity Age has seen this median-age gradually increase. Now, it stands at about 37 years old in developed nations. In the poorest African nations it remains in the teens… for now.
What we are now seeing is a gradual increase in this median-age of population, accompanied by a decreasing birth rate. In fact, birth rate is beginning to fall below replacement in the world’s wealthier technological cultures now.
Down the road, perhaps a few centuries to be conservative, the planet will be inhabited by cultures whose median age will almost certainly be above 100 years. Even in that distant day, the impact on a person in their 20’s to 40’s wouldn’t be much different than today. Coming into one’s 70’s and beyond, however, one begins to see through the idealistic and simplistic ‘solutions’ culture offers. Live long enough and one has an increasing opportunity to experience the inherent emptiness in the promises leaders of society (artistic, religious, political… you name it) offer.
Simply put, living is life’s classroom; the more time spent in class, the greater the potential we have to see through our blind spot. True, you and I are not going to be around to see this, but isn’t it uplifting to know we are at least evolving (circumstance-wise anyway) in a beneficial direction? Hallelujah!
Our journey into rash actions leading to ominous results began with either fire or language. The fuel for this journey has been an ongoing desire to overcome any natural obstacles to comfort and security, followed by the desire to invent ways of increasing comfort and security further. Buddha put it most succinctly, “pleasures are the bait, the result is pain”. The Tao Te Ching has much to say on this as well, e.g., With desire choosing anything, of doing I see no satisfied end.
Alas, our solutions always seem to present us with even graver problems, culminating in an ability to wipe out life on earth through a nuclear war. See, D.C. Lau’s Woe to him who wilfully innovates while ignorant of the constant.
Youthful minds are less capable of envisioning the unintended, often adverse, consequences of ‘progress’. One has to screw up for decades to really appreciate how much ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. The most important thing in life, the bottom line, is health. That is the essence of survival. Everything else is simply indulging one’s daily self-interests. What began with fire as a tool of survival, will end with the ultimate advancement in the cause of survival – health and long life. With long life comes increasing mental health – wisdom and pseudo free will– and this will enable us to return to living in greater harmony with the rest of life on earth. Yes, human history has a happy conclusion despite all its thrilling ups-and-downs midway.
(1) About Archaeology says:
The controlled use of fire was an invention of the Early Stone Age (or Lower Paleolithic). The earliest evidence for controlled use of fire is at the Lower Paleolithic site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, where charred wood and seeds were recovered from a site dated 790,000 years ago.
Not everybody believes that; the next oldest site is at Zhoukoudian, a Lower Paleolithic site in China dated to about 400,000 BP, and at Qesem Cave (Israel), between about 200,000-400,000 years ago.
In a paper published in Nature in March 2011, Roebroeks and Villa report their examinations of the available data for European sites and conclude that habitual use of fire wasn’t part of the human (meaning early modern and Neanderthal both) suite of behaviors until ca. 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. They argue that the earlier sites are representative of opportunistic use of natural fires.
(2) The introduction of game-changing technology, be it fire, iron, or electricity, disrupts society, both culturally and economically. Anthropology offers evidence of this when iron tools were introduced to primitive people. Similarly, the widespread use of electricity and the automobile, along with the other technological innovations of the previous century, may have been a major cause of the Great Depression and World Wars. I see similar confusion and a ‘disturbance in the continuum’ brought about or amplified by the widespread use of the computer. I’d wager that humanity is in for one heck of a ride over the next few hundred years as religious and cultural norms fall by the wayside and are replaced by some which ‘speak’ more effectively to the chaos and confusion of current times.